Everyone should grow pimentos. These beautiful, thick-walled fruit carry a sting of goodness that works in dishes across the board.
For this recipe, we used both green and red fruit; the unripe peppers have a bit of astringency, but that’s undercut by blanching whole—ripe and unripe—in lightly salted water to cover until they are just soft, maybe 5 minutes.
Halve and seed peppers. If you’re not going to use them immediately, put them in a jar with a salty water. They’ll keep for a week or two like this, or you can put them in a jar with salt water and oil to keep longer.
For 2 cups shredded sharp cheddar cheese we used about a third of a cup of diced blanched peppers. We used just enough mayonnaise to moisten, but no cream cheese to keep the pimentos’ pinch.
A bit of granulated garlic and salt rounded out this batch, though chopped scallions or shallots wouldn’t be out of place.
You can use a prepared pizza crust, but I implore you to learn how to make a simple pizza crust; it’s not hard at all, nothing more than flour, yeast, water and olive oil.
With a homemade crust, you can adjust the thickness to your tastes and add whatever herbs and cheeses you like to it instead of what some dingbat in a test kitchen thinks you like. Roll out your dough—I like mine on the thin side—and crimp the edges. Cover the crust with thin, drained tomato slices. Dust the tomato layer with grated Parmesan cheese and a bit of that ubiquitous Italian seasoning blend.
As to the pimento and cheese, friends and neighbors, I wish I could tell you that you can use store-bought or even your homemade recipe, but if you do, you’re going to end up with a greasy, runny mess because the mayonnaise will separate.
Instead, toss mild grated cheddar with drained diced pimentos—I dice the roasted red peppers you can buy in a jar—diced white onions and shaved ham. Yes, you can use bacon but make sure it’s lean. I wouldn’t range too far afield in toppings—no anchovies!—but it’s your pizza, and you can put any damn thing you want on it. Spread pimento cheese mixture over the tomatoes, dust with Parmesan and bake on the middle rack at 450 for about 15 minutes.
Robert Moss, who’s from Charleston, is a culinary historian, a geeky gaggle of food writers in which I am gosling if not egg.
In Going Lardcore: Adventures in New Southern Dining, Moss delves into stories of Low Country dishes such as shrimp and grits and she-crab soup as well as elements of our broader Southern cuisine like bourbon, fried green tomatoes and pimento cheese.
Here he becomes troublesome, claiming rum is more Southern than bourbon, that fried green tomatoes are a Yankee invention, and that pimento cheese originated in upstate New York.
It’s this pimento and cheese issue I’m all over like a duck on a June bug, but before going any further, let’s turn to this matter of spelling, since I’m acutely aware that any article in Mississippi is going to be scratched over and henpecked by a pompous flock of literati. God help me if my semicolons lack weight.
Yes, I am quite aware that the it’s the pimiento pepper, but in his article “Creating a New Southern Icon: The Curious History of Pimento Cheese”, Moss notes that “In the late 1890s, imported Spanish sweet peppers started being canned and sold by large food manufacturers, which not only boosted their popularity but also introduced the Spanish name pimiento.
Soon the ‘i’ was dropped from common usage, and by the turn of the century most print accounts of the peppers call them ‘pimentos’.” I’ll remind you that Moss has a PhD. (in English, no less) from Furman, and though I’m not known for my slavish allegiance to academics, like the rest of you, I always concur with eggheads when they’re in my corner. It looks good on paper.
Moss does not create another idol in this article; instead he reveals himself as an iconoclast of the first order by exposing the Yankee roots of a Southern dish Boston-based food writer Judy Gelman claims is “held sacred by Southerners”, and his research seems brutally thorough. Evangelism is clearly in play.
What made pimento and cheese characteristically Southern is the use of cheddar. In memory lives the vivid image of a red hoop of cheddar sitting on the counter of a small country store under a wrap of wax paper ready to be sliced and eaten with saltines and a hunk of baloney or a can of Viennas.
There’s no doubt in my mind that this was the cheese most often grated and used with homemade mayonnaise for pimento and cheese in rural kitchens throughout the South.
Still and all, Moss makes a valid point; if foods we consider Southern are anathematized by Yankee roots, then our idolized pimento cheese has feet of clay. We just found out how to do it right and made it ours. But how is it that we’ve come to make a cult of cornbread, a fetish of fried chicken and an idol of black-eyed peas, all adorned with the trappings of media devotion and academic Sunday schools?
Let’s please move beyond the iconography of food (barbecue is just short of having a clergy) and come to realize that any significant foodstuff is nothing more than a pleasing combination of tastes and textures. And sure, let’s have food festivals; of course you wouldn’t expect to find a shrimp festival in Omaha or one for mountain oysters in Key West (I could be wrong about that) but let’s come to know them for what they are: celebrations of people and place.
As to pimento and cheese itself, I’m not going to be so crass as to give you a recipe. You do it the way you like it; God knows you’re going to anyway. Pimento cheese should be devoid of controversy. It’s not; everyone thinks their version is the best. But you’re the one making it, so to hell with them.
Though Moss claims that recipes with cream cheese are “definitely in the minority”, I always add it to mine, mixing it with the mayo 1:3. I also belong to a schismatic if not to say heretical sect who find a fresh sweet peppers from the garden as acceptable as canned pimientos, and have no problem adding chopped green onions, though I get a lot of finger-wagging over that.
“The Masters pimento cheese must be the most famous sandwich in all of sport,” wrote journalist Andy Bull, and it was Nick Rango’s recipe for “the pȃte of the South” that made the Masters gallery snack iconic.
The pimento cheese Nick Rango sold from his store, Woodruff Drug in Aiken, South Carolina, was so famous that in the 1960s, Masters organizers dropped the husband-and-wife catering team they’d hired since the 1940s to make way for Rango’s. For 45 years, Rango and his two children, Billy and Stella, whipped up massive quantities of pimento cheese by hand to take to in Augusta every April.
More than 20 years ago, the Masters chose not to renew Rango’s contract; afterward he refused to share the recipe, taking its secret to his grave in 2015. Ted Godfrey, Rango’s replacement, claims that the missing ingredient in Rango’s pimento and cheese came to him in his sleep, as missing things tend to do.
By the next year’s tournament, Godfrey had filled Rango’s shoes, and patrons were none the wiser. But Godfrey also withheld his recipe after the Masters replaced him with in-house catering in 2013.
When Rango lost the contract, the change of hands hardly registered with patrons, but when Godfrey lost the contract, patrons noticed—and so did the press. Wright Thompson, a writer for ESPN noticed, and he was directed to Godfrey, who spilled the beans. Thompson’s 2013 exposé—later known as “Pimento-Gate”—revealed a Masters’ operation that tournament organizers would’ve preferred stay shut.
The episode, Thompson wrote, “left the Masters concessions staff trying—and failing, in a rare moment of fallibility—to recreate the same recipe that generations of golf fans have enjoyed.”
Admittedly, until the unlikely event that a Rango relative shares the original recipe, the best we have is an imitation of an approximation created by lifelong Masters patron and Augusta food blogger, Gina Dickson. Since her family moved to Augusta in the 1970s, Dickson estimates she’s been to no fewer than 25 Masters tournaments.
A deft cook who’d eaten countless pimento cheese sandwiches dating back to the Rango era, Dickson says it took her several hours to reverse-engineer the ingredients and consistency. I recommend you add a grain of salt.
Masters Pimento Cheese Sandwich
2 cups sharp cheddar cheese, shredded 1 cup Monterey Jack cheese, shredded 4 ounces cream cheese ½ cup mayonnaise (“just don’t use Miracle Whip—that’s a Northern thing”) 4-ounce jar pimento peppers, drained and diced 1 tablespoon onion, very finely minced ¼ teaspoon garlic powder ¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper ¼ teaspoon salt ¼ teaspoon black pepper
Combine all the ingredients in a medium bowl and mix until smooth and creamy. Refrigerate the mixture for at least an hour to allow it to become firm. Serve on white bread.
The first time I submitted a Mississippi top twelve, it was like throwing a June bug down in a flock of chickens.
The pot roast was devastated by a barrage of loyalists who maintained it’s “just got Yankee written all over it.” The red velvet cake was accused, convicted, and shot for being a Waldorf recipe, and the pecan pie was mined by a sweet potato. I substituted pound cake for red velvet and sweet potato pie for pecan. The roast lost to stewed greens–which damn near lost out to limas.
Here’s the treaty, but rumor has it the pecan pie faction plans a fifth column action from Belzoni.